IT was a poll many hoped would break the political deadlock over Catalonia. At the very least there was optimism that it might provide some degree of clarification on both the region and Spain’s immediate future.

Instead, Thursday’s election has only plunged both into further uncertainty after Catalan separatist parties won a slim majority. That the turnout was a record high of 82 per cent is a measure of the seriousness with which the electorate takes the issues at stake.

While the pro-Spain Ciutadans (Citizens) collected the most votes in what was the biggest electoral triumph so far for the party founded just over 10 years ago, the real winners turned out to be the pro-independence groupings, who together have a majority in the new Catalan parliament.

All of this of course means there is now as many questions as answers as to what happens next. If one thing at least is certain it’s that the result represents a damaging blow to Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. Mr Rajoy’s Popular Party came last in the election with just three seats, down seven, a major setback by any standards. He and his conservative cabinet had tried to nip the independence movement in the bud, calling the election with the expectation of reaffirming Madrid’s control over Catalonia with an emphatic victory. Instead Mr Rajoy now faces the probability of an ongoing confrontation with a separatist coalition once again in power in Barcelona.

He will again also face pressure and critical scrutiny, not just for gambling on the snap election, but also for his previous draconian response to deposed Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont’s calling for an independence referendum.

For their part, the separatists, emboldened by election result, will see it as handing a mandate back to Catalonia’s ousted leaders and further vindicating their cause. But what their victory really means in practice, however, remains the subject of some speculation.

As the Barcelona newspaper El Periodico pointed out yesterday the result means a “divided Catalonia”. One split in two blocs with little space for intermediaries.

Then there is the question of Mr Puigdemont himself. Will he be able to be re-appointed given that he will be arrested if he comes back to Spain?

Faced with this latest political impasse the priority now must be to make sure there is no slip back to the openly confrontational politics that saw weeks of demonstrations and heavy-handed response by the Spanish government. There needs to be compromises from both sides to prevent a return to the political silo mentality so prevalent before the election. For its part the EU too must not shy away from its responsibilities in helping to find a negotiated solution.

As the Scottish independence referendum showed, resolving such thorny political issues using the democratic process can be done. Diplomacy and dialogue is key. All parties involved however, need to recognise and respect that from the outset.